President Joe Biden on Tuesday (Oct. 24) awarded the National Medal of Science to Gebisa Ejeta, Distinguished Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics and International Agriculture, executive director of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security and Purdue University Presidential Fellow for Food Security and Sustainable Global Development. The award is the highest recognition the nation bestows upon scientists, according to Mornin Gagclips.
Ejeta – The Most Impactful Plant Genetics Expert
Ejeta studies sorghum, an ancient grain used widely as a food source for humans and livestock. He received the 2009 World Food Prize for his research in creating sorghum hybrids that are resistant to both severe drought and the destructive parasitic Striga weed. The resulting dramatic increase in sorghum production has helped feed hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Gebisa Ejeta is one of the most impactful geneticists in the world, a remarkable leader at Purdue in food security research, and a role model of perseverance for all Boilermakers. Our university celebrates another prestigious and richly deserved honor, bestowed by the president of the United States, to Gebisa, and I am delighted to join him on behalf of our university at the White House ceremony today,” said Purdue University President Mung Chiang.
“With this latest exciting news, Purdue faculty and alumni have received 19 National Medals of Science, of Technology and Innovation, of Humanities or the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including three current faculty members.”
As to the White House, Ejeta was honored for outstanding contributions to the science of plant genetics. By developing sorghum strains that withstand droughts and parasites, he has improved food security for millions. His advocacy for science, policy and institutions as key to economic development “has lifted the fortunes of farmers and strengthens the souls of nations.”
Ejeta has served at the highest advisory levels of science and national policy, including as special advisor to the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, as science envoy of the U.S. State Department, and as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. He also has been a member of the U.S. Board for International Food and Agricultural Development and the U.N. Secretary’s Scientific Advisory Board.
Ejeta is an advocate for purpose-driven research. His own work is focused on elucidating the genetic and physiological mechanisms of important sorghum traits. Grain sorghum is the world’s fifth-most important cereal crop. With its superior drought tolerance and broad adaptation, sorghum is grown worldwide, serving as a staff of life for over 500 million people in developing countries, and is the second-most important feed crop in the United States. Ejeta’s research addresses some of the most crucial traits of sorghum production and utilization, including nutritional quality; drought and cold tolerance; and resistance to pests, diseases and Striga. He also investigates concerns of global biodiversity, gene flow and the use of sorghum as a biofuel crop.
The Sorghum Genetics
The goal of Ejeta’s sorghum research program is the development, release and deployment of improved sorghum cultivars for both food and feed use. His sorghum research is generally characterized by its sustained commitment to translational approaches that generates products and technologies from research findings to impact farm productivity and the eventual utilization and profitability of the crop postharvest. He utilizes a variety of research tools and works in interdisciplinary collaboration with a number of other scientists and programs. Ejeta has released many inbred lines and improved sorghum varieties and hybrids for use both in the United States and in Africa. His cultivars have been successfully deployed in several African countries.
Ejeta’s Pursuit To Outstanding Genetics Career
Graduate education, mentoring of professionals and developing partnerships are integral components of his sorghum research program. Ejeta has trained and mentored a large cadre of domestic and international students and professionals at Purdue and in collaboration with other institutions. He has led many collaborative agricultural research and development projects, catalyzed the creation of public and private seed enterprises, and facilitated the formation of public-private partnerships in collaborating countries.
Ejeta was born and raised in a small rural community in west-central Ethiopia and was awarded the nation’s National Hero Award, Ethiopia’s highest honor, in 2009. He earned his master’s and PhD in plant breeding and genetics from Purdue, where he has been a College of Agriculture faculty member and researcher since 1984.
Purdue University is a public research institution with excellence at scale. Ranked among top 10 public universities and with two colleges in the top 4 in the United States, Purdue discovers and disseminates knowledge with a quality and at a scale second to none. More than 105,000 students study at Purdue across modalities and locations, with 50,000 in person on the West Lafayette campus.
In October 2022, Ejeta was also named the Purdue University Presidential Fellow for Food Security and Sustainable Global Development. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels announced the appointment today.
Ejeta, a World Food Prize laureate and distinguished professor of agronomy, is also executive director of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security. He has served at the highest advisory levels of science and national policy, including as special advisor to the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, as science envoy of the U.S. State Department, and as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. He also has been a member of the U.S. Board for International Food and Agricultural Development and the U.N. Secretary’s Scientific Advisory Board.
“Dr. Ejeta’s scholarly excellence and his immense impact in advancing agricultural science and sound policy for food security are internationally recognized,” Daniels said. “We hope this designation here at Purdue casts another bright light on his accomplishments and demonstrates the university’s commitment to his continuing work to improve global food security and its related causes.”
Jay Akridge, Purdue provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity, and Theresa Mayer, executive vice president for research and partnerships, said Ejeta’s leadership in this role will significantly advance the university’s work to support sustainable global development with a focus on food and nutrition security. In this role, Ejeta will shape the university’s efforts in these areas and work to promote Purdue’s global food security agenda with federal agencies, foundations and private entities to enhance competitiveness.
“Through his strategic leadership, Gebisa has directed the talent and resources from across the university’s wide expertise to develop lasting approaches on food insecurity,” Mayer said. “His successes have resulted not only in a growing global community but also in nurturing the leaders of tomorrow who will tackle our world’s evolving challenges.”
Ejeta will continue to help shape, and advocate for, food-security strategies through ongoing engagements with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other agencies. After 10 years as a member of the U.S. government’s Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, he continues to consult with its members.
His ongoing involvement is likely to continue to have great impact due to the recent White House then announcement of $8 billion in new initiatives in hunger, nutrition and health. The new plans include investments of $2.5 billion in startup companies that provide solutions to hunger and food insecurity.
In 2009 Ejeta was awarded the World Food Prize for his research in creating sorghum hybrids that are resistant to both severe drought and the destructive parasitic Striga weed. The resulting dramatic increase in sorghum production has helped to feed hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ejeta experienced poverty and hardship as a child living in a one-room thatched hut in west-central Ethiopia. His mother, who was determined that he get an education, saw to it that he attended school in a nearby town. Ejeta would walk 12.5 miles to school on Sunday nights and walk home after school on Fridays.
His academic excellence earned him financial assistance for second-level school, where he graduated with distinction. He later received his bachelor’s degree in plant science from Alemaya College in eastern Ethiopia. His college mentor introduced him to Purdue professor and sorghum researcher John Axtell, who invited Ejeta to assist in his sorghum work.
Ejeta would then earn his master’s and PhD in 1976 and 1978, respectively, and join the Purdue faculty. In 2011 Purdue launched the Center for Global Food Security with Ejeta at the helm to lead initiatives that respond directly to urgent global challenges, primarily meeting today’s global food needs and ensuring that strategies are in place to ward off future food insecurity as the world population grows and the climate changes.
For Ejeta, the Purdue University Presidential Fellowship represents both the university’s commitment to continue to advance an agenda of purpose-driven science and to him as a person and a professional.